Guitar virtuoso Preston Reed plucks up front row appeal

Preston Reed has tutored Ed Sheeran in his innovative guitar playing, writes Joe Dermody.
Guitar virtuoso Preston Reed plucks up front row appeal

FEW seats have greater appeal to acoustic guitarists than the front row at a Preston Reed show, the New York-born inventor of a mould-breaking percussive style.

Living in Scotland since 2000, for a time Reed hosted highly sought-after, five-day private workshops. He recalls one 2005 workshop in which he tutored a talented 13-year-old called Ed Sheeran.

“Ed came up with his father,” recalls Reed. “There was only one other student, Jocelyn from Oklahoma, whose boyfriend came too. The boyfriend had previously been a gangster in Mexico. Ed was blown away with the idea of him being a gangster, and had lots of questions for him.

“On the Friday night, we had a party to finish up. Someone suggested Ed should rap lyrics along to some of my songs; so I played ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Fat Boy’ and ‘Metal’, and he made up some gangster rap lyrics.

“Ed was intelligent and quick; he very quickly picked up the things that he had come up to learn. Even at 13, you could tell he had real determination and ambition.”

Reed was something of a prodigy himself. In 1972, aged 17, he played onstage with legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Reed was invited there by a guest who heard him play at a New York party. Reed was brought to the party by his elder sister, Fran.

But surely, at 17, it must have been a bit alien for Reed to find himself in the US capital performing for a theatre full of Beat poets and hippy academics? “It wasn’t that alien to me really. I’d always admired Fran, and she was very much an authentic hippy. She had been to Woodstock, she was going out with Denis Hopper at one stage, and she appears in the movie Easy Rider. I wasn’t a hippy myself, but I had read a lot of the Beat literature, and I was familiar with Allen Ginsberg’s work before we met.

“He was very excited about the performance. The show was very fun and loose. He did some recitations, then he’d let me play a tune, then he did a recitation while I played a groove. It went down well.”

At the time, Reed was developing an alternating bass finger-picking style influenced by guitarists like Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), acoustic blues player John Fahey and 12-string virtuoso Leo Kottke. Reed later took on the styles of everyone from Hendrix to Clapton. He is also an accomplished classical guitarist.

Even today, Reed’s shows still feature a mix of traditional guitar styles. He sees his percussive style as “an evolution, not a revolution”. Reed’s songs are very strong on melody, and often blend formal styles into his percussive style.

Martin Scorcese’s 2005 docu-film No Direction Home (about Bob Dylan’s influence) features an emotional Allen Ginsberg stating that Dylan’s arrival effectively marked the end of Beat poetry. Similarly, in the late 1980s, Preston Reed brought a new guitar style that left other guitar styles in the shade, at least for a few years. Did some people feel the need to defend their old turf?

“There were some naysayers who argued that what I was doing wasn’t guitar playing, that it was drumming mumbo jumbo. They said they weren’t hearing any music in it. I’m not sure why they reacted like that. I had a very strong foundation in the traditional ways of playing; that certainly helped the credibility of what I was doing. I wasn’t just thrashing away at the guitar.”

When Reed plays in De Barra’s, Clonakilty, Co Cork, on Thursday, guitarists eager for a fret-side view will occupy the front rows hours before his arrival. Reed arrives in Ireland fresh from shows in China, playing to audiences of musicians gathered to see his techniques. Does he mind this up-close attention?

“No, I’m honoured that they want to sit there studying intensely. The front row guitar nerds are very welcome. That said, I think of myself as an entertainer, not just as a technician. When I get the techniques right, they’re there to deliver the emotion of the tune.”

  • Preston Reed’s tour includes Thursday, De Barras, Clonakilty, Co Cork; Friday, Belltable, Limerick; Sunday, Roisin Dubh, Galway; Fri, Feb 17, Nelliefreds, Dingle, Co Kerry; and Thurs, Feb 23, The Grand Social, Dublin.

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